From the heart or the head

Most of us understand that we can connect to music from multiple angles: emotional, analytical, as a student, as a teacher, as a critic or just just casually. However we are connecting we can easily tell when we like something or we don’t and we don’t need any sort of training for that to occur.

Case in point one of my readers, Randy Coleman, sent me this note about his A/B testing of the NuWave DAC.

“As I switched back and forth between the CD inputs, my wife hollered at me from the other room, “Why is the music jumping?” I told her what I was doing and asked her to tell me whether A (DL III) or B (NuWave) sounded better. A self-described tone deaf, tin-eared music tolerator, she said B was dramatically better with every music sample. She used the terms “richer,” “more alive,” “more depth,” “less grainy,” and “sounds of individual instruments are clear.” Trust me, she’s never read a hi-fi magazine.”

No, she’s never read a hi fi magazine but she knows what she likes. Why? Because she wasn’t trying: her analytical mind was switched off and her emotional connection switched on.

Whenever I am put on the spot to evaluate something my immediate reaction is one of anxiety – I become guarded as it feels like I am on trial. It’s taken me years to learn how to relax under this stress and turn on the emotional “engine” in me.

As designers, however, we must be able to go in and out of the two states in order to relate what we get emotionally connected with to its root cause.

Tomorrow, learning to design by listening.

Paul Mcowan – PS Audio, Intl.

Trying too hard

When we first started PS Audio in the mid 1970′s Stan and I were hell bent for leather on getting as close as we could to our reference preamplifier’s sound, the Audio Research SP3A4 which is still a great sounding, musically satisfying design even to this day. We wanted to produce an affordable version of this fine preamplifier, one people like us could afford as the SP3 was, in those days, a lot of money.

As we got closer to the musicality of the AR, with our solid state design, I was still struggling to hear this “musicality”. Focusing as hard as I could on the quality of the cymbals, the pluck of the bass the tiny nuances of the voice I could certainly tell differences but I could not, for the life of me, tell which was more musical. Musicality in a piece of stereo equipment was a concept that really eluded me – yet seemed so obvious to the group of Audiophiles we knew at the time.

It’s tough being the one guy in the crowd that knew more about how things worked but less about how well they worked than anyone else.

I was always a music fan and went to as many live concerts as I could but honestly, those concerts never sounded even remotely the same as even the best stereo systems I had ever heard. Yet this live music seemed to be the standard by which everyone judged the performance quality of their stereos. It was baffling.

The big breakthrough for me came from my partner in PS, Stan Warren. Stan said something like “you’re simply trying too hard. You’re focusing on the gnats and gagging on the whales. Does one sound closer to actual musicians playing in the room and the other more like a hi fi system trying to duplicate the same?”

Surely it couldn’t be that simple. What Stan was telling me was something I have never forgotten to this day – to stop focusing on the little specific bits in a performance and step back to take in the whole experience – despite the fact the musicians never really sound like they are in the room (in the literal sense of the words) it is all relative.

It may seem obvious to many of you what I have just written and I am sure my initial ignorance applies only to me and a few like me. I get very literal at times – a tendency I see a lot in our engineers and programmers. The nerd in me was just struggling to look so closely at the details in order to find the whole.

We’ll look deeper tomorrow.

Paul McGowan – PS Audio, Intl.